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October 5, 2012

How to think with the early church about disagreement

There is nothing like an election cycle to showcase disagreement at its most rancorous. How should Christians navigate the troubled waters of conflict, whether as parishioners, employees or citizens?

Kavin Rowe helps us answer that in a short essay on Acts 15 and how the early Christians integrated disagreement into the church community. It’s a Christian account of conflict that presses disputants to be as charitable as possible toward their opponents and as critical as possible of themselves.

You should check out Rowe’s essay yourself (and his entire series on thriving communities) but here are a couple key takeaways to consider:

Accept Spirit-given reality checks. Rowe highlights how “the experience of the Spirit” forced the church to question its old certainties, a primary source for conflict in a community. The early church’s dramatic confrontation over Torah-observance in a predominantly Gentile church hinged on a factual dispute: Had uncircumcised Gentiles received the Spirit? Peter (Acts 10:44-48, 15:7-8) and Paul (Acts 15:12, Gal. 3:2) insisted that they had, and demanded that all parties reckon with this truth. But the factions at the Jerusalem Conference faced the universal temptation to huddle in self-congratulation and unquestioned certainties, to deal in shibboleths and secret handshakes in exchange for serious self-examination, to resort to rhetorical sniper-fire instead of honest debate.

Acts 15 suggests that one way the Spirit moves Christians to resolve conflict is by freeing them for the humbling, often mortifying task of seeing the world in the light of truth. We can cooperate in this work by striving to test our beliefs and assumptions against experience, by opening ourselves to what Greg Jones calls, “holy friendships” with people who “know us well enough to challenge the sins we have come to love.”

But be gracious about it. The centrifugal force of too much conflict will tear a community apart, yet disagreement and dispute can also point to individuals serious about growing together in the truth. This is why philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has said that every vital tradition had to be a “sustained argument about itself.”

Still, a community can’t learn to live with and profit from disagreement if it treats every dispute as zero-sum game, with two sides striving for crushing victory. By contrast, Luke Bretherton suggests that Christians should treat conflict as an occasion for hospitality, as an opportunity to display “interpretive charity” toward those we are most inclined to misrepresent.

The world today desperately needs leaders who can respond even to unfair or hurtful challenges graciously, without recourse to vitriol, slander or public attack. Scripture’s open, honest account of the early church’s internal struggles provides a model for Christians hoping to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).

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